By Alex Cassara | LSU Student
While he has a face most LSU football fans won't recognize, walking through campus on a game day with Delvin Breaux is still a chore.
Every 150 feet, an old friend stops "Chip" - a mom from the childhood playgrounds, a former coworker at the athletic building, a local bartender. How could they not? Flashing a perpetual, magnetic smile, Breaux exudes personality while speaking politely.
They also most likely haven't seen him for some time. It's been about a year since he has been on campus. It's just too hard on him. "I looked up to (LSU) since I was little. I always wanted to play for them. When I never got my chance when I knew I had a chance, it's just made me not really want to come back."
As a touted LSU signee, Breaux incurred a broken neck that would keep him from stepping foot in Death Valley, or any collegiate football field. He did all he could to suit up and play — and Breaux says he could have — but the liability was too great for the schools.
But on this day, he celebrates. At 22, Breaux is attempting a comeback. With each step closer to his ultimate NFL goal, the bitter taste of rejection isn't as strong. Breaux is realizing the potential he once thought hijacked.
"My heart is racing and I'm just ready for things to happen. It has been happening thus far."
Breaux hopped among New Orleans housing projects with his biological mother until he and brother Lionel Jr. moved in with his father, Lionel Breaux, and stepmother Juanita Blakely about 18 years ago. That portion of his childhood was rough. He still runs into strangers who say they helped take care of him. Some days, they didn't eat.
They were surrounded by violence. One of his brothers burned down a house and Delvin got in trouble for stealing. So when his dad introduced him to football, it became an avenue of escape.
"It changed my life. It's kept me focused on trying to be the best instead of trying to be a junkie."
He was better than most of the kids. "We put him out there day one, and he was just crazy for it," Blakely said.
Eventually, the motivation for making big plays moved from Blakely baiting him with fast food to chasing collegiate scholarships. Breaux became a prep star at New Orleans' McDonogh 35 Senior High School. By his junior year, he had developed into a lockdown cornerback and says he received more than 30 offers from Division I schools.
After LSU called, he took himself "off the radar." Delvin committed to the Tigers prior to his senior prep season and planned to enroll in time for spring football.
He wouldn't get the chance.
On Oct. 27, 2006, McDonogh was trailing Jesuit High School when it kicked off with Breaux at the gunner position. He was first to reach the returner, flattening him. Initially unable to move, Breaux eventually walked off the field under his own power. His neck hurt, but not that badly.
"(I) got up, walked off the field, go to the sidelines, take my own helmet off. They like, ‘You all right?' I said, ‘Yes sir, I'm good.'"
Breaux started having trouble focusing his eyes. Stiffness set in. Even from the stands, his stepmother could tell he was short of breath. When he tried to take ibuprofen, he couldn't swallow. He coughed. Instantly, the pain became excruciating. Breaux was rushed to the hospital where he and his family were shocked to discover he had broken his C4, C5 and C6 vertebrae and damaged a vessel that carries blood to the brain.
"The doctor came back and was like, ‘I don't understand how you're here.' I said, ‘What you mean?'"
His neurosurgeon at Tulane University Hospital, Miguel Melgarl, was quoted in an article on the school's website as saying, "He's really very lucky he didn't drop dead on the field." Breaux spent 10 hours in surgery and four weeks in the hospital.
Although it wasn't known if Breaux would ever play again, LSU said his scholarship would be honored. He was encouraged when Melgarl said, as Breaux was being discharged, to send him tickets when he reached the Super Bowl.
Even more encouraging was his recovery speed. Without formal rehabilitation, Breaux said it took nine months to heal what doctors said would consume two years. He participated in track in the spring. After graduation, he helped coach his old team at McDonogh 35 while waiting to enroll at LSU in the spring of 2008. Arriving on campus in December, Breaux immediately impressed former Tiger Drake Nevis.
"I worked out with him and he was strong, fast, flexible," Nevis said. "I told him he would get his shot."
Breaux thought he might just be ready when his dreams were crushed shortly after arriving. Futilely pleading that he had been cleared by his personal physicians, Breaux was told by LSU team doctors that he would never compete.
LSU made him a player coach, but it wasn't enough. He cried watching his teammates at practice. "Going from something I can do and have to do to get stronger and better on the football field, then telling me I can't do this, it was emotional."
He eventually stopped showing, getting his fix on the flag football field, where he would "misuse everybody." He neglected school work and began partying. His grades slipped, and by fall of 2010, he lost his scholarship.
"'They're not doing nothing for me, they're not trying to help me play again.' That was my mentality at the time, just playing again. Not worrying about getting my degree."
Disappointments piled up.
Breaux was set to transfer to the University of Arkansas-Montecello, medically cleared by doctors there, but his GPA wasn't good enough. He moved back to New Orleans, where a tryout with the Saints fell through at the 11th-hour because he couldn't provide game video.
"This is it, I can't keep trying no more," Breaux remembers thinking at the time. But his fortunes have reversed since he started playing in June with the Louisiana Bayou Vipers, a Hammond semi-pro team that plays in the Gridiron Developmental Football League.
He had kept up with flag football and, despite apathy, an impressed opponent convinced him to attend a Vipers practice. He had come too far to quit.
Vipers coach Ronald McCaleb's first impression: "He was pro ready."
With Breaux covering every team's best receiver, and playing tackle football for the first time in five years, the Vipers went 10-0 this past summer. The same problem that plagued his high school statistics limited Breaux to 45 tackles, five interceptions, three pass breakups and two forced fumbles.
"After the first couple of plays, the competition gave up (throwing to his side)," McCaleb said.His performance tabbed Breaux for the league's all-star game and finally caught the eye of an agent.
"I knew there was something about him from the way he talked and how he carried himself and what he was trying to do," said Anthony Griffith of Sports Management Worldwide.
Griffith had his client perform for scouts on Sept. 1 in San Antonio, Texas, where Breaux ran a 40-yard dash in 4:34. Afterward, Griffith heard interest from the Arena Football League's Utah Blaze and New Orleans Voodoo, but the scouts told him he's better than minor league football.
"A 6'1" corner with 4.3 speed and linebacker strength, that's valuable in the (NFL). All he needs is a workout." said Nevis, who plays for the Indianapolis Colts.
He knows he has to start somewhere. And as Breaux's career is starting to pick up steam, his animosity for LSU is dissipating. While he claims he was misled by school officials regarding his role with the team coming in, he understands the liability and blames only himself for flunking out. The LSU Athletic Department declined to comment on the issue.
"I'm glad Les Miles just gave me the opportunity to be (there) at school," says Breaux.
For now, he works as a bartender's assistant and waits for the call. He dreams of supporting Blakely, who he considers his real mother, his girlfriend and others who supported him in his journey. He wants to pull his lost siblings out of their tough situations, like football did for him.
He just wants to play a game with which he has grappled but loves.